Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’

Extended sympathies

May 28, 2012

A Memorial Day dream, or pure fantasy? Depends on how many of us share and spread the cooperation meme. Andrew Revkin imagines a time when humans will war no more. Darwin did too:

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” Descent of Man

A Memorial Day for War’s Fallen, Perhaps Someday for War Itself? – NYTimes.com

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Where to, humanity?

October 3, 2011

Cards & Phils are all tied up, 4-4, in the 6th inning of Game #2 (we’ll not talk about Game #1), as I sit down on Sunday night to think about Monday’s class. Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Dewey, James… they were all evolutionists, but were any of them baseball fans? Well, Mill was a cricketer, Nietzsche a “footballer.” Dewey praised the “tense grace of the outfielder.” One of James’s students tried to interest him in the game once, without success:

Morris Rafael Cohen records, “When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘ I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations.”

And that’s a good segue to Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche. All were concerned, in one way or another, with the prospective greatness of humanity. A common misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis had him defending the “survival of the fittest” ethos as social policy. But Darwin was no Social Darwinist, preferring instead the cooperative liberal vision of his countryman Mill.

And then there’s Nietzsche, heralding the Ubermensch (“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”), aspiring to a personal future “beyond good and evil,” heaping scorn and abuse on comfortable “couch potato” English values (like democracy and “utility”), and insisting that hardship is the cost of greatness.

Nietzsche liked Emerson, and his “self-reliance.” The “Divinity School Address” must have pleased him too, with its repudiation of Judeo-Christian(-Islamic) supernaturalism and “monstrous distortion” of Jesus’ message that our life is a natural miracle, “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Nietzsche read German translations of Emerson’s essays, copied passages from “History” and “Self-Reliance” in his journals, and wrote of the Essays: that he had never “felt so much at home in a book.” Emerson’s ideas about “strong, overflowing” heroes, friendship as a battle, education, and relinquishing control in order to gain it, can be traced in Nietzsche’s writings. Other Emersonian ideas-about transition, the ideal in the commonplace, and the power of human will permeate the writings of such classical American pragmatists as William James and John Dewey. SEP [affinity]

Thoreau reputedly lived a lot like Nietzsche, in (relative) hermetic isolation. But did you know that during his sojourn at Walden pond, on property owned by Emerson, he made regular town-rounds and dropped his laundry off at Mom’s? [pics]

Peirce imagined the ideal end of intellectual history, defining truth as the view destined to be agreed upon. “Agreement” is not a term often associated with Nietzsche.

And what did James think of Nietzsche? Lumped him with Schopenhauer as a pair of rats, and pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies.”

(5-4 Cards in the  7th…)

Are We Still Evolving?… Darwin & friendsEvolution & cooperationbest idea evermeanings evolvebest way to begin each day (Nietzsche?!)… nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach yainto thin air (Nietzsche on hardship)…recurrence (“When N. Wept”)… “I am dynamite

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll finish PW this week. On Monday & Tuesday,

M 3 PW 104-113. Mill & Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson & Thoreau, Peirce & Dewey, James.

And note: next week it’s time to declare your report intentions: solo or collaborative, presentation or essay, and what’s your topic? Signups on the 10th & 11th.

See you all in class.

PostscriptCards win!

I wonder: does an interest in spectator sports help or hinder the evolution of our species? This morning my feeling is, if the future has no MLB postseason I don’t want to go. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie…”

“Are we still evolving?”

April 7, 2011

That’s the question of the day, along with “Where to, humanity?” But who to ask?

Most days lately, the answer would have to be: doesn’t seem so. Jerry Coyne, some researchers at Duke, and Time all say yes. But they’re not really asking the  more important and pointed question:  are we evolving culturally? Are we becoming a better, kinder, more peacable and cooperative species? Again, appearances usually suggest not. But it would have been easier to think otherwise a century and a half ago.

The 19th century was a crowded one, probably philosophy’s best so far. John Stuart (“of his own free will”) Mill is the most famous English utilitarian, but Jeremy Bentham is the one who came up with the “hedonic calculus” for determining the greatest good of the greatest number. (It’s not very reliable, unfortunately.) He’s under glass, now.

Auguste Comte was a positivist who also preached the  ”religion of humanity,” sometimes aka “secular humanism.”

As for Darwin’s “friends,” you might say that with pals like these he didn’t need Intelligent Designers

Herbert Spencer, for instance, came up with “survival of the fittest” and (according to most mainstream evolutionists) badly misapplied evolutionary ideas to society in general. Social Darwinism is un-Darwinian.

But American philosophy generally  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it.  Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

The evolution vs. creation  debate had been raging in America even before Darwin published, in 1859. Ernestine Rose, one of many neglected female freethinkers in the 19th century spotlighted by Jennifer Hecht in Doubt, had an answer to those early IDers who were sure that oddities like blind fish somehow attested to divine architecture in nature.

What did she make of the world without a creator? One believer had told her that an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator, since this showed design. Rose explained, “He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed… [Inherit the Wind…What is “holy to the agnostic” (Darrow cross-examines Bryan)… Hecht on the Scopes TrialWinterton Curtis… on Darwin15 answers to creationiststheistic evolution…theistic evol DS1…DS2Coyne vs. ShermerHitch on theistic evoldefining religion…evol & meaning (Galaxy Song)] [meaning & evolution… grandeurEverybody’s StoryEvolution for EveryoneDarwin’s Dangerous IdeaOnly a Theory (K. Miller)…   Greatest Show on Earthonly a theory (Dawkins & Krauss)… Why Evolution is TrueTrials of the Monkey40 Days and 40 Nights]

NEXT WEEK: O 138-152, PW 108-119 (Peirce, James, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Russell)

Darwin & friends

November 18, 2010

“Are we still evolving?” That’s the question of the day. Most days lately, the answer would have to be: doesn’t seem so. Jerry Coyne, some researchers at Duke, and Time all say yes. But they’re not really asking the  more important and pointed question:  are we evolving culturally? Are we becoming a better, kinder, more peacable and cooperative species? Again, appearances usually suggest not. But it would have been easier to think otherwise a century and a half ago.

The 19th century was a crowded one, probably philosophy’s best so far. John Stuart (“of his own free will”) Mill is the most famous English utilitarian, but Jeremy Bentham is the one who came up with the “hedonic calculus” for determining the greatest good of the greatest number. (It’s not very reliable, unfortunately.) He’s under glass, now.

Auguste Comte was a positivist who also preached the  “religion of humanity,” sometimes aka “secular humanism.”

As for Darwin’s “friends,” you might say that with pals like these he didn’t need Intelligent Designers

Herbert Spencer, for instance, came up with “survival of the fittest” and (according to most mainstream evolutionists) badly misapplied evolutionary ideas to society in general. Social Darwinism is un-Darwinian.

But American philosophy generally  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it.  Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

The evolution vs. creation  debate had been raging in America even before Darwin published, in 1859. Ernestine Rose, one of many neglected female freethinkers in the 19th century spotlighted by Jennifer Hecht in Doubt, had an answer to those early IDers who were sure that oddities like blind fish somehow attested to divine architecture in nature.

What did she make of the world without a creator? One believer had told her that an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator, since this showed design. Rose explained, “He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed… [Hecht on the Scopes Trial… on Darwin15 answers to creationiststheistic evolution…theistic evol DS1…DS2 Coyne vs. ShermerHitch on theistic evoldefining religion…evol & meaning (Galaxy Song)]

James did not think there was any insuperable incompatibility between religion and the new Darwinian science. But for himself, he said,

I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.

Dewey called his version of pragmatism “instrumentalism,” and set up an experimental school to try it out. He wrote The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy (and other essays on this theme).

If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them…

Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them…

a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice. In having modesty forced upon it, philosophy also acquires responsibility.

Harvard’s turn-of-the-century philosophy department was a hotbed of pragmatism, but also included the metaphysical idealist Josiah Royce (who was James’s office-mate and next-door neighbor in Cambridge, MA) and the Spanish expat George (“those who do not remember the past”) Santayana. Lately, Richard Rorty (of Princeton and UVA, among other places) wore the mantle of neo-pragmatist.

Another recent Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, wrote A Theory of Justice. His colleague Bob Nozick came up with the Experience Machine.  Their colleague W.V.O. Quine (who I met in one of my professors’ kitchen in 1978, btw) said experience is a “web of belief.”

James’s favorite contemporary philosopher Henri Bergson, a “vitalist,” said there’s a mysterious “life force” behind everything.

Freud‘s philosophical credentials are challenged by some, but he expressed a forceful alternative to Cartesian rationalism and said we don’t know ourselves or our minds well at all. He liked to ponder the symbolism of cigars, too.

St. Louis Hegelians.” I’m from St. Louis, and the only Hegelians I encountered there were down in Columbia at Michael’s Pub. They weren’t all that deep, but at least one of them thought he was free.

But again, it was a different story back in the day. Even Dewey was a member of the tribe, though he was no midwesterner.

Finally, for now: at the TPA meeting the other day I attended a talk where an old (but misguided) friend contended that  “pluralists can’t be pragmatists.” That was irritating. I kicked the nearest percept I could find and repeated Dr. Johnson’s boast: “I refute you thusly.” My foot, or rather my idea of my foot, is still throbbing.

Speaking of evolution: Denis Dutton has interesting thoughts on the evolutionary origin of art, music, and creativity…

More on Nietzsche: Solomon on the Ubermensch and Will to PowerNihilism & the death of GodQuashing Rumors…]

brief candle

May 8, 2010

It wasn’t the Friday it was supposed to be, grading from dawn to dusk, and so it will be a grading weekend. Forrest was right, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Before heading down the pike once more to administer one last exam, the one flooded out on Monday, I stopped by the radiologist’s for my latest close-up. Just need to confirm that this barking hack isn’t my old pneumococcal nemesis back for a return engagement. Fingers crossed.

Then, gratefully released back into the light I had to take a moment to inspect the Richland Creek Greenway behind the radiology lab. The flood’s damage there was extensive. Damn. But the  good news: they’re at work constructing a new path that will extend to Knob Road.

Before finally giving that final final, there were three final report presentations to hear. Tanasha’s on Darwin gave me an excuse to mention “Darwin Got it Goin On,” which I’d just tweeted about, and to remind everyone that Darwinism and Social Darwinism are two different critters. Most students have been misinformed, usually by pastors and pietists, about that.

Then, to the Dean’s memorial service not far from school. Not surprisingly, the turnout was huge. He was a Dean’s Dean, up from our ranks but still one of us. It was a delight to meet his twin brother Tom McDaniel, whose eulogy was the highlight of the service.

There were a couple of lowlights I must report. One was the pew-mate who took offense at my colleague’s and my brief pre-service conversation, inspired by the Dean’s love of baseball. The Dean would not have understood or endorsed her protest, I’m guite sure.

Another was the hollow sanctimony of the officiating minister. All those smug, desperate, incredible assurances that mortality is a fiction. I wish the Dean had written the service.He did write his own obituary:

Having lived ‘the examined life’ with animated good humor, Dr. McDaniel leaves behind few regrets and many memorable moments… Teaching Shakespeare’s tragedies for four decades left him with the distinct impression that almost everyone dies in the end, though he had hoped that perhaps in his case an exception would be made.

But not really. A good Shakespearian, like a good Confucian or a good Taoist or a good Humanist, knows better than to seek light from an expired wick.

But he also knows that there are other candles. Like me, the Dean walked every day past a tablet on our campus– located near the historic Walnut Grove, the stand of trees germinated by seeds harvested at George Washington’s Mount Vernon– bearing the Plutarchian wisdom that “the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.”  Our good friend John lighted many fires.

Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more.

One of our very best players has left the stage. Those of us still on it who bade farewell to our friend and teacher yesterday are very fortunate to have studied with a master. Our tomorrows will creep less pettily for the privilege.

Postscript. We were also privileged, last night, to bask in the impressive collective wattage of Younger Daughter and her peers at the 5th grade “Cafe Night” talent show. One candle dims, countless others flare up. The future looks bright.

catching up

March 31, 2010

Emerson is the first dead American philosopher to grab Simon Critchley‘s attention. We got a late start, but I’m confident we’ll catch up.

For what it’s worth, Nietzsche liked him. Not everyone does. But John Updike was a fan, so was James, and so am I. Lately I find myself echoing The Sage’s self-exhortation (“up again, old heart!”) a lot. I can’t imagine how a father rouses himself after the loss of a child, and I can’t believe Emerson when he says his son’s death “does not touch me.” That has to be a rhetorical stage of grieving (stuck somewhere between denial and anger, short of full acceptance) and a way of raging impotently against what must feel like an irredeemable cosmic injustice– not to mention a soul-crushing slug to the gut.

I hope he didn’t just see it as a salutary expression of his vaunted “self-reliance.”  In any case, he knew it was “a luxury to draw the breath of life” (Div.School Address]– a bitter luxury perhaps, in the shadow of heart-wrenching loss.

He was our first “secular humanist,” though it might be more accurate to call him “spiritual, not religious” (though not exactly in the AA sense). He was also a skeptic and a stoic, much impressed by the interior and “trying” style of Montaigne. [E’s Intro to M’s Essays]

Pneumonia, with which I’ve gone a couple of rounds myself, got Emerson. Thankfully there are drugs for that now.

Thoreau, dead American #2 (at just 44!): asked if he had made his peace with God, he replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.  He is an inspiration, to me and my kids and to lovers of bears everywhere.

James. Freud said “I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.” But there’s lots of life left in Richardson’s bio, so let’s move on. As we read in Passion for Wisdom on Monday, his overriding interest was always in the problems of everyday living.

Dewey. He was still doing important work into his nineties. No one has had more insight into the importance for democracy of education, or the influence on philosophy of Darwin. He had no use for a mere “spectator’s” perspective… Education is experience, participatory and engaged.(PW)

Freud. His wish seems to have been fulfilled. All those cigars took a bite out of him but he showed no sign of complaint or irritability with his painful condition, he accepted it and was resigned to his fate. Much closer to Epicurus or Montaigne than Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche. Was his seeming megalomania(or madness) really a joke, as Critchley speculates? It might be nice to think so, if not wholly persuasive.  “The most serious Christians have always been well-disposed towards me.” That definitely sounds like a joke.

Mill. A 15-mile walk atage 67 did him in. There are worse exit scenarios, and worse motivational statements than “Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

Darwin. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey,  enjoying (as it were) a state hero’s repose.  When he grew tired of studying life’s specific origins he knew his own wasnearing its terminus.

KierkegaardDespite his tireless tirades against the degraded Christianity of the Danish pastors, Kierkegaard was buried with a full religious service. Was that gracious, mocking, or just… absurd?

Marx. Critchley is so good at bringing obscure but telling detail to the fore– like poor Marx’s carbuncles. The  material conditions of existence are no abstraction when they consume one’s “whole cadaver.”

Bergson. It’s so tempting to make light of the passing of the philosopher who championed the elan vital or life force, I’m surprised Critchley doesn’t. But he deserves a respectful remembrance, as one who stood in solidarity with his people when he might have walked away. He may have been James’s favorite philosopher.

Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche

March 29, 2010

Where do you want to go today?

March 29, 2010

That was Bill Gates’s old question, not unlike ours in Intro today (as posed by Bob Solomon & Kathy Higgins): “Where to, Humanity? Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche”… and not unlike the instigating question in next Fall’s new “Future of Life” course.

I worked up a slideshow on this, after discovering the Slideshare tool over the weekend and having no trouble at all putting up my baseball shows. This morning it’s balking. I’ll keep working on it. Meanwhile, the story can be summarized thusly:

J.S. Mill (of his own free will) articulated a vision of human good as a progressive, perpetual  historical expansion of human rights and individual liberties. The only reason for limiting any person’s freedom is in order to protect the freedom of others. His “harm principle” says do your thing, just don’t interfere with anyone else’s right and opportunity to do the same. (And he meant anyone’s, women included. His friend Harriet helped him see the light on that.)

Charles Darwin‘s revolutionary account of evolution by natural selection cast that enterprise in a new light. As Dan Dennett would put it much later, freedom evolves and so do we.  That ought to bode well for Mill’s project and ours. But this suggests a momentous question: Could humans still be evolving? If so, into what? Could we be living some brief, intermediary existence between the “lower” animals and some higher, mightier, or more adaptive creature than ourselves? [Charles & EmmaDawkins & Dennett on D…his birthday and Abe‘s…ScopesBBCPBS]

Enter Fritz Nietzsche, offering the incredible suggestion that human beings were nothing but a bridge between the ape and the Ubermensch. The future of human nature was now called into question. What will we make ourselves, what will humanity become? [Drunk on the ground]

Good question. Is the suggestion really so incredible? Some have found it inspiring, others terrifying. We’ll see if we find it instigating in class.

And we’ll wonder if, in the immortal words of CSNY, we have all been here before. Deja vu all over again, Yogi? Or do we only go around once, and need to grab the gusto while we can? Or was that precisely the point of Fritz’s gift to his shrink? Isn’t it also, btw, what “Phil” learned in Groundhog Day? (Woody in Manhattan, too…)

grading w/vigor

March 20, 2010

It’s the weekend, but no sleeping in for me today. My presence at Mother-in-law’s house (an hour and a half down the pike) is required shortly.

So, I set the iHome to get me up and grading early. Wasn’t even going to indulge any morning reflections today. But then the dulcet voice of Richard Dawkins came on, lighting the dark, reading from the final sections of Greatest Show on Earth.  How can I possibly not reflect? (Strange, isn’t it, to have to choose between grading and thinking?) But I’ll be brief.

First, Dawkins was noting Darwin’s “bending over backwards” to console us for nature’s brutality in the struggle for existence. “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt [dubious], that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

Simple reflection: I love that bold emboldened declaration, and try to live by it.

Then: “On Darwin’s worldview, everything about the human mind, all our emotions and spiritual pretensions, all arts and mathematics, philosophy and music, all feats of intellect and of spirit, are themselves productions of the same process that delivered the higher animals. It is not just that without evolved brains spirituality and music would be impossible. More pointedly, brains were naturally selected to increase in capacity and power for utilitarian reasons, until those higher faculties of intellect and spirit emerged… The Darwinian world-view does not denigrate the higher human faculties, does not ‘reduce’ them to a plane of indignity.”

And so, intellect and spirit are exalted by their association with humble origins. There is grandeur in this view of life.

And there’s no indignity in grading, either. “Up again, old heart.” (Emerson was an evolutionist too.) Vigor, health! Get happy!

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.